D. Internal Security problems

During UNTAET administration UN police and peace keeping forces -- UNPOL and PKF -- were at hand to aid in providing internal as well border security and to train East Timorese police and military. Under UNMISET administration, UNPOL was radically scaled back with a small retinue of personnel to advise and assist recently trained of East Timorese Police Officers. PKF assisted the National Defense Force in the border regions. On 20 May, 2005 the United Nations ended its peace keeping activities in East Timor.

East Timor has been troubled since its independence with internal security matters with opposition groups – social movements that are sometimes violence and crime prone – and with the inadequacy of the National Police Force of East Timor (PNTL) and the National Defence Force of East Timor (FDTL). By inadequacy, I am referring to the series of reports (see http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2004/41641.htm; the State Department’s country reports on human rights) of officers behaving in an unprofessional manner and being charged with excessive use of physical force, human rights abuses, rape and corruption, as if taking out a page from their former master’s book (the Indonesian police and military). While these are reported as isolated incidents there appear to be quite a few of these incidents to suggest that further training and better enforcement of law is required and that there might be some cause for concern in the immediate future (see also Jolliffe 2004 “Timorese Police mimic violence of ex-master”, http://www.atimes.com). It would appear that the UN did not quite succeed in building a police force with a healthy respect for human rights. The State Department’s report from 28 February 2005 (http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2004/41641.htm) lists the following unconstitutional human rights violations committed by the very people who supposed to provide security for East Timorese citizen who have been much traumatized during Indonesian occupation,


There were numerous reports of excessive use of force and abuse of authority by police officers. Prolonged pretrial detention was a problem. The rights to due process and to an expeditious and fair trial often were denied or restricted….there were also reports of abuse of authority by government officials.


…September 2003 killing of fugitive militia leader, Francisco Vegal Bili Atu by a member of the PNTL. While the officer claimed the shooting was in self-defense, there were credible reports that excessive force may have been used.


There is also a series of reports of incidents of beatings and other excessive use of force by police officers towards those they have detained under various circumstances, including during demonstrations. Reports of sexual abuse by police officers and soldiers are also exposed in the same report—alarmingly these were young teenage victims. The Professional Standards Unit (PSU) of East Timor had a backlog of about 75 cases by the end of 75.

It should be pointed out, however, that East Timor’s police and military forces also face a number of other challenges in being able to provide adequate service to the general population. Lack of equipment, working vehicles, working communication devices are just some of the infrastructural problems impeding rapid response by security forces. Lack of training might also be mentioned as officers often overlook required procedures and are unprepared to properly carry out investigations and arrest. Officers are also reported to succumb to political pressure and in the case of local regional police officers, also to the pressures of kinship ties and traditional social hierarchies. The 2004 report appears to suggest that many of the issues and impediments to providing proper policing did to change since 2002.

During my anthropological research in the Atsabe subdistrict in 2002 I heard a litany of unsolicited complaints and worries of local people concerning policing (Molnar 2004). In cases of violent incidents officers were badly outgunned. The local terrain is also limiting in terms of vehicles available to local police, which effects response time as well. For example, to get to Tiar Lelo village from the subdistrict center of Atsabe, it takes almost as long with a simple pick-up truck as it does hiking.[1] Thus basic infrastructure was not in place for effective patrolling, let alone rapid response time to incidents. Furthermore, communication with Gleno, the Ermera district center, or even with Letefoho or Hatolia subdistricts was not always an easy matter with hand-radios; signals are not always transmitted well in this highly mountainous terrain. Telephone and Internet connections at the police station had a tendency to break down, mainly due to faulty or old equipment.

In addition, the police officers were very young, and in a society like the Atsabe Kemak where age status matters significantly in local cultural context, the young officers do not have much status or the confidence of the population to solve problems.[2] Lack of confidence of the locals, also had to do with the perception that the mannerism and way of talking to the locals by these officers were a direct imitation of the way INDONESIAN officers used to interact with the locals. Yet another factor that was mentioned continually was the issue of impartiality, since the local people were keenly aware how each of the officers was connected in the local kinship system -- to which powerful family or group in the sense of indigenous social organization. Since the young officers were still very new at their jobs, they had not yet had a chance to prove themselves and thus alleviate some of these local concerns. However, their inability to deal with more serious incidences, such as that of January 2003 further undermined their authority and the general populations’ confidence in them.

Another important issue raised in local perceptions was that East Timorese local police are exactly that, local people with kin ties, alliances, biases, interests, social obligations and duties within the Atsabe community. After all they must live in the community, as do their families. This in turn, it was suggested, influenced their enthusiasm for the types of action that could be taken against the perpetrators of violence and crime.

The Popular Committee to Defend the Democratic Republic of East Timor (CDPD-RDTL) is a political social movement which appears to be the most troublesome anti-government group. They refuse to recognize the authority or legitimacy of the current government. The movement tends to attract the old, the uneducated poor, women, children and disenfranchised former guerrilla freedom fighters. As mentioned in the History and Politics section above, this group was also a bit troublesome during the 2001 elections. Members refused to register for voting and to vote and in some places intimidate the villagers to deter them from voting (collected their registration cards so that they could not participate in the elections). As a 1980s splinter group of the FALINTIL freedom fighters, they argued that an independent democratic East Timor was already declared in November 1975 and therefore the UN administration and election were not only unnecessary but also illegitimate. Their activities seem to have stepped up with the scaling back of UN presence with a number of demonstrations, organizational meetings, and even violence. According to Jolliffe (2004; www.atimes.com) the leader is Antonio Ai-tahan Matak and during 2004 they were producing their own ‘identity cards’ that would compete with that of the governments.

Other rural based revitalization social movements (cf. Wallace 1956) with a syncretized religious focus include the ‘sacred family’, ‘kolimau or colimau 2000’, and the isolados (Portug. ‘the isolated ones’). Certain elements of these groups, particularly Kolimau, have been accused of stealing, extortion, and threatening villagers among other crimes (see Molnar 2004). During 2003 the activities of Kolimau 2000 were reported in the media as constituting a ‘national security threat’. This label is somewhat of an exaggeration and misunderstanding. None of these religious groups that stray from main stream Catholicism constitute a bigger threat in terms of their crimes committed than apparently the crimes committed by certain individual member of the local police force and military. However, these revitalization movements also tend to attract the poor, jobless, and otherwise disenfranchised.


[1] It took me one hour brisk hiking to get to Tiar Lelo on various occasions in 2002 and UN police officers who responded to an incident involving re-integrated former militia in the same village took over 45 minutes with a pick-up truck to get to this isolated village.

[2] There were many unkindly comments made about the young police officers by the locals in 2002, criticizing their physical fitness and size in dealing with strong perpetrators, particularly the female officers. These comments however were made during a change over of personnel, when there was no UN police presence in Atsabe for a week.


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